Jo Talks Books: On Why I Don’t Believe In Guilty Pleasures

Hi all! Since we are now approaching the end of the first full week in June, I figure it’s time for me to do my first discussion post of the month. This month I’m talking about something more general, though obviously as always it does relate to books. I’m going to be talking about Guilty Pleasures and why I think it’s a stupid term.

It’s always something I’ve been uncomfortable with, the term Guilty Pleasure. It just seems like such an oxymoron, how can something that brings you pleasure make you feel guilty (unless it’s illegal, obviously) for liking it?  It’s a term we use to describe something that we like but feel we should be ashamed of, and why? Because other people think we should be ashamed of it? Because some arbitrary person somewhere has decided that what we like isn’t worth liking? It just doesn’t make any sense to me. When you love something, you should love it openly and joyfully and share that love with other people, you shouldn’t feel you can only admit it by saying, “it’s a guilty pleasure”.

This phenomenon is most common with things that have a large, predominantly female fandom (ah sexism, rearing it’s ugly head yet again). In books, we see this a lot with romance novels, they’re dismissed as a genre (despite, I think, being the biggest selling genre), often times, people describe a romance novel as their so called “guilty pleasure” because people have decided, hey women like these, so let’s deride them! YA is dismissed for the same reason, it’s a majority female authorship and readership, so of course people decide to deride it. No wonder we feel like we should be guilty about the things we like when society is constantly telling us that they aren’t worth anything. Look at any list of guilty pleasure reads and nine out of ten times if not absolutely every single one, the books will be written by women. That’s not okay and definitely needs to be more acknowledged.

When it comes to books, the books most likely to be derided as “guilty pleasures” are the ones that are seen as not having “literary merit”. You’ll never see a Dickens, or a Tolstoy, or an Orwell derided as something people should feel guilty about reading, not in the same way that you’d hear something like 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight called a guilty pleasure. And why? Just as many people love stuff like 50 Shades or Twilight as like any of the classics by the famous old white dudes. Now I do not have time to go into all of the sexist stuff surrounding the decisions as to what books are considered to have “literary merit” but whatever your own personal feelings about books like 50 Shades or Twilight, you can’t deny that they were super popular. So why the need to describe books like that as guilty pleasures? Because they were written by women and have a predominantly female fanbase? That is messed up! Besides, who says that books have to have “literary merit” for them to be enjoyed? And who decides “literary merit” anyway? If you enjoy a book, then it has done its job!

Aside from all the sexist bullshit that goes along with the whole concept of guilty pleasures, I have just never believed in feeling guilty about what I like to read, or watch or listen to. I love talking about all the books I read, whether they be YA, SFF, crime, contemporary adult fiction, anything, if I read it, I’m going to talk about it loudly and proudly. I feel like people who look down on certain books as guilty pleasures, are either ashamed that they like something because they’ve been societally conditioned that they should, or because they feel that their reading taste is somehow superior (and yes, I’ve been around a lot of those people). You’re not hurting anyone by liking romance, or erotica, or YA, or any other genre of book that is looked down on, derided as a guilty pleasure, so why shouldn’t you be able to share your love of them openly? Answer: you absolutely should.

I’ve also noticed that when it comes to guilty pleasure reads (or guilty pleasures in general for that matter), it tends to be the lighter, softer, fluffier entertainment that gets branded a “guilty pleasure”. Think books like The Selection, the Georgia Nicoloson books, Bridget Jones Diary, the Shopaholic books. Because they’re books focused on women finding love, rather than death or war or illness or anything like that, they’re branded as “guilty pleasure” books. But what’s wrong with liking something cute and fluffy? There are enough horrible things going on in the world as it is at the moment anyway, reading is a form of escapism, so it makes sense that people might want to escape into something cute and fluffy rather than something intense. There’s this notion that because something focuses on pain that it’s worth more, but I don’t think that’s true. It’s just as important to focus on the light in the world, the stuff that brings us joy, as it is to look at the things which cause us pain.

Guilty pleasures, it seems to me, is yet another way to police what people enjoy. Society tells us that such and such isn’t good for us, that it’s inferior to some supposed superior alternative and so we should brand it as a “guilty pleasure”, as if that somehow justifies our liking it. For books, it’s just another way of enforcing book snobbery, like you can like that lesser book as long as you know that my 200 hundred year old classic is infinitely better than whatever it is you’re reading. By using this term, we justify this kind of snobbery and not just for books, but for any other mass consumed media as well.

So the next time you’re picking up a book that’s maybe a little fluffy, or hasn’t won ten billion awards, or isn’t 200 years old, or is written by a woman, or is enjoyed by teenagers, and you’re about to call it a “guilty pleasure”, don’t! Embrace what you love, loudly and proudly. No one should be able to make you feel guilty about something you love. Guilty pleasures is an outdated, often sexist and just plain wrong term to refer to any kind of media that society has decided isn’t worth consuming. But guess what? If you love it, and it’s not hurting anyone? It’s worth consuming.

There we go, my thoughts on guilty pleasures, books and otherwise! What do you think? Have you ever described anything as a guilty pleasure? What? Let me know in the comments!

I will have another discussion post for you at the end of June, though I haven’t decided what it will be about yet. I’m hoping I will have a Writing Corner post up for you guys very soon, talking about TINALS and the process of editing it, but in the meantime, I’m very close to finishing Crooked Kingdom, so you will probably get a review of that very soon!

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